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Hubris Syndrome - Psychologists Discover New Personality Disorder Among Political Leaders

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October 30, 2010, last updated April 29, 2012
By LOUISE CARR, Contributing Columnist

How Does Hubris Syndrome Differ from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Is hubris syndrome new, or a part of recognized disorders such as bipolar disorder or narcissistic personality disorder? Researchers suggest that grandiosity is also a feature of bipolar disorder but that the two conditions are separate. Hubris syndrome is similar to narcissistic personality disorder in that both can be seen as an acquired disorder and one that can disappear – one 1995 study from McLean Hospital, Belmont showed only 46 to 50 percent of sufferers retained a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder at a three-year follow-up point.

Seven of the researchers’ 14 defining symptoms of hubris syndrome are among the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association, but five symptoms are unique to hubris syndrome – “conflation of self with the nation or organization; use of the royal ‘we’; an unshakable belief that a higher court (history or God) will provide vindication; restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness; and moral rectitude that overrides practicalities, cost and outcome.”

Researchers maintain that a leader suffering from hubris syndrome should display at least one unique symptom and three of the others. But whether or not hubris syndrome is different from narcissistic personality disorder, should it be taken seriously?

Is Hubris Syndrome Dangerous?

The study authors claim “hubris syndrome in politicians is a greater threat than conventional illness to the quality of their leadership and the proper government of our world.” Hubris syndrome in our leaders potentially affects us all – decisions made under the influence of hubris syndrome may be reckless and based on an accountability to a higher power and not to the people themselves, leading to lapses in judgment that could have catastrophic consequences. Leaders with hubris syndrome, it is argued, act to win glory and in doing so lose touch with reality.

How dangerous is a politician out of touch with reality, possessing an unshakeable belief they are right? What about responsibility to the electorate? Should a politician who didn’t suffer from hubris syndrome when he was elected step down if his personality changes once he has acquired power in office?

Hubris syndrome doesn’t just affect politicians. The recent economic crisis revealed several high-profile and powerful business leaders afflicted by the condition. Could hubris syndrome have caused the financial meltdown?

Who Should Diagnose Hubris Syndrome?

If hubris syndrome is seen as a medical condition, and one that can cause a significant amount of suffering to the body of the country, this raises certain tricky policy issues. Who should diagnose the sufferer and what should they recommend as treatment? Is it possible to design legislation and official codes of practice to limit its effects? Or perhaps prevention is better than cure – political candidates should undergo brain-imaging to track hubris risk. It’s unlikely that any political leader suspected of having hubris syndrome would voluntarily submit to further medical tests and psychological questioning. And it is hard to know whether hubris syndrome disappears as power disappears, as we know little about leaders’ lives and personalities once they leave office.

A more likely form of hubris syndrome limitation would come from a greater awareness of the condition and a consequent obligation on leaders to be accountable for their actions and accept constraints on time in office. Hubris syndrome or not, political leaders around the world could benefit from treatment to increase self-control, and the ability to listen to advisers while keeping a proportionate sense of humor and perspective while in office.

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It's all about me. Leaders with hubris syndrome value their self-image above all.

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